Make the Season Merry and Bright for Your Special Needs Child

Preparing special needs children for holiday events helps keep them calm and comfortable so they are better able to enjoy themselves.

Preparing special needs children for holiday events helps keep them calm and comfortable so they are better able to enjoy themselves.

The holidays can be a stressful time for anyone, but for children with special needs, shopping crowds, hurried schedules and flashy decorations can be especially taxing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 1 in 88 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with autism. According to the American Psychiatric Association, 3 to 7 percent of school-age children have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or AD/HD.

There are steps parents, family members and friends can take to ensure that loved ones living with an autism spectrum disorder or AD/HD have a fun and happy holiday season.

Practice and Preparation

“So many things that work with young kids with autism are just good practice for toddlers or preschoolers in general,” said Sherry Sancibrian, M.S., CCC-SLP, director of the Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences Program in the School of Allied Health Sciences. “They’re so much calmer and can enjoy themselves if they really feel comfortable and they know what’s going to happen.”

Sancibrian said for children with autism, social stories, or step-by-step instructions with pictures that are read once or twice daily, may help children prepare for holiday traditions and rituals like traveling, spending time with family and opening presents.

“I would start maybe a week out, whether your family does advent or not, opening a small something practicing opening and saying, 'Thank you,' and all of those things that would be expected,” Sancibrian said. “If you can practice that in private with your family, you’re going to have much less embarrassment with grandma getting her feelings hurt.”

Melinda Corwin, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, director of the Center for Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, said planning ahead of time and sticking to a schedule are also essential for children with AD/HD. She suggests making packets with stickers, coloring books, writing paper, crayons and stickers to help minimize meltdowns on long trips.

Overcome Over-Stimulation

If behavior starts to escalate during family gatherings, Sancibrian and Corwin both suggest having a quiet, dim room set aside as a retreat where over-stimulated children can regroup with soothing music or a story.

“I think lots of people with autism are more comfortable either by themselves or with only one or two other people, and holidays always involve crowds, even if they’re your family, it’s still a crowd, and so you can really end up with sensory overload,” Sancibrian said.

Think about the senses when Christmas shopping, too, Sancibrian said. Perhaps the best gifts for children with autism include cause and effect toys like a jack-in-the-box or Etch-a-Sketch. When purchasing toys that require more imagination like cars, she suggests buying multiples.

“Instead of buying your child 10 toys, I would rather you buy two each of five different toys so that you and [your child] can play together and you can demonstrate how to play with [the] toy.” Sancibrian said. “Practicing imitating is so important.”

When wrapping presents for an autistic child, Sancibrian said it is best to make the package as easy as possible to open. Remove all boxes, twist ties and plastic that could get in the way and cause frustration.

Children with autism and/or AD/HD may experience the holidays differently than others, but with patience and preparation, Sancibrian and Corwin agree there is no reason for this season to be any less merry or bright.

“There’s nothing about autism that is so unusual that the rest of us couldn’t do the same things or need the same things,” Sancibrian said. “But having a pleasant holiday with a special needs child means you have to work at it a lot harder. It’s more things to think about.”

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